Bioterror science poised to explode in dark future

CIA warns frightening’ weapons on horizon

Pushed by an unprecedented scientific revolution, the future may yield biologically engineered weapons "worse than any disease known to man," a report by the CIA concluded.

The unclassified CIA report, The Darker Bioweapons Future, was released Nov. 3, 2003. According to the agency report, a panel of life science experts convened for the CIA Strategic Assessments Group by the National Academy of Sciences stated that advances in biotechnology, coupled with the difficulty in detecting nefarious biological activity, have the potential to create a much more dangerous biological warfare threat then currently faced.

The panel noted that the genomic revolution is pushing biotechnology into an explosive growth phase. Knowledge will evolve rapidly and be so broad, complex, and widely available to the public that traditional intelligence means for monitoring weapons of mass destruction development could prove inadequate to deal with the threat, the report stated. Detection of related activities, particularly the development of novel bioengineered pathogens, will depend increasingly on more specific human intelligence, necessitating a closer — and perhaps historically different — working relationship between the intelligence and biological sciences communities.

In the last several decades, the world has witnessed a knowledge explosion in the life sciences based on an understanding of genes and how they work. According to the report, practical applications of this new and burgeoning knowledge base will accelerate dramatically and unpredictably. As one expert said in the report: "In the life sciences, we now are where information technology was in the 1960s; more than any other science, it will revolutionize the 21st century."

The growing understanding of the complex biochemical pathways that underlie life processes has the potential to enable a class of new, more virulent biological agents engineered to attack distinct biochemical pathways and elicit specific effects. "The same science that may cure some of our worst diseases could be used to create the world’s most frightening weapons," the CIA warned.

The know-how to develop some of these weapons already exists. Examples in the report include:

• Australian researchers recently inadvertently showed that the virulence of mousepox virus can be significantly enhanced by the incorporation of a standard immunoregulatory gene, a technique that could be applied to other naturally occurring pathogens such as anthrax or smallpox, greatly increasing their lethality.

• Biologists have synthesized a key smallpox viral protein and shown its effectiveness in blocking critical aspects of the human immune response.

• A team of biologists recently created a polio virus in vitro from scratch.

Designer agents and stealth viruses

According to the CIA report, other classes of unconventional pathogens that may arise over the next decade and beyond include binary bioterrorism agents that only become effective when two components are combined. A particularly insidious example would be a mild pathogen that when combined with its antidote becomes virulent, the report stated. Other possibilities are "designer" biological agents created to be antibiotic-resistant or to evade an immune response; weaponized gene therapy vectors that effect permanent change in the victims’ genetic makeup; or a stealth virus, which could lie dormant inside the victim for an extended period before being triggered.

Yet effective countermeasures, once developed, could be leveraged against a range of agents by augmenting common elements of the body’s response to disease, rather than treating individual diseases. Such treatments could strengthen defense against attacks by a broad range of biological agents. However, because the processes, techniques, and equipment needed for advanced bio agent development are dual use, it will be difficult to distinguish between legitimate biological research activities and production of advanced weapons. The panel contrasted the difficulty of detecting advanced bioweapons with that of detecting nuclear weapons, which always have had clear surveillance and detection signs, such as highly enriched uranium or telltale equipment.

Consequently, most panelists argued that a qualitatively different relationship between the government and life sciences communities might be needed to most effectively grapple with the future threat. One possibility being discussed is early government assistance to life sciences community efforts to develop standards and norms intended to differentiate between legitimate and "illegitimate" research.